Berners-Lee says no to internet 'snooping'

The inventor of the World Wide Web has criticised internet service providers and third parties that intercept web traffic
Written by Tom Espiner, Contributor

The inventor of the World Wide Web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, has attacked deep packet inspection, a technique used to monitor traffic on the internet and other communications networks.

Speaking at a House of Lords event on the 20th anniversary of the invention of the World Wide Web, Berners-Lee said that deep packet inspection was the electronic equivalent of opening people's mail.

"This is very important to me, as what is at stake is the integrity of the internet as a communications medium," Berners-Lee said on Wednesday. "Clearly we must not interfere with the internet, and we must not snoop on the internet. If we snoop on clicks and data, we can find out a lot more information about people than if we listen to their conversations."

Deep packet inspection involves examining both the data and the header of an information packet as it passes a 'black box' on a network, in order to reveal the content of the communication. Targeted advertising services, such as Phorm in the UK, use deep packet inspection to monitor anonymised user behaviour and to target adverts at those users. In addition, UK government initiatives such as the Intercept Modernisation Programme have proposed using deep packet inspection to perform mass surveillance of the web comunications of the entire UK population.

Speaking to ZDNet UK at the event, Berners-Lee declined to comment about any particular company or government initiative, but said that internet service providers (ISPs) should not perform deep packet inspection.

"If [third parties] are using the data for political ends or commercial interest, there we have to draw the line," Berners-Lee said. "There's a gap between running a successful internet service and looking inside data packets."

Berners-Lee expressed concern that the UK government had taken no action over deep packet inspection, in contrast to the US government's response to the use of deep packet inspection by targeted advertising company NebuAd. Last autumn, the US Congress decided to review privacy concerns around the start-up, after which the company's chief executive, Bob Dykes, stepped down.

"I'm embarrassed, as a UK citizen and as a US resident, that the US has drawn a line firmly against deep packet inspection and this country hasn't," Berners-Lee said.

Nicholas Bohm, the general counsel for the Foundation for Information Policy Research (FIPR), said the UK government may not have taken any action over deep packet inspection as it was in the process of developing the Intercept Modernisation Programme itself. "The government's desire to know all about us may be hampering its doing anything about others who are snooping," he said.

Kent Ertugrul, the chief executive of Phorm, said his company had ensured that privacy principles are adhered to by anonymising the data it collects, while at the same time giving websites the ability to fine-hone their advertising. "We have created something that reconciles the need for privacy, but also for commerce," said Ertugrul.

Prominent cross-bench peer Lord Erroll said deep packet inspection to target adverts did not concern him as much as the UK government's plans.

"The Intercept Modernisation Programme worries me hugely more than [targeted advertising]," said Erroll. "The impact of an incorrect interpretation of communications by government means anyone could end up in jail, or worse. It's hugely dangerous."

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